DESTINATION: ROMANIA / Bicaz Gorges - Hasmas National Park, a little piece of heaven in Romania's heart

The Bicaz Gorges-Hasmas National Park is located in the Hasmas Mountains, incorporating the area of the Harghita and Neamt counties, but covering only 6,800 hectares; it's home to rare birds and plants, some even unique in the world, one of the few barrier lakes in Central and Eastern Europe, where there is a forest covered by water still preserved after 150 years, the most towering limestone gorges in Europe, but also meadows of breathtaking beauty.


To get familiar with the natural wonders of this area, I take a trip together with Director of the National Park, Barna Hegyi on a holiday route quite short and easy towards the Suhardu Mic Peak, nearby the Red Lake, located at an altitude of about 1,350 meters.

All the way I listen to Barna Hegyi passionately talking about the national park, the animals living here, the rare plants bearing scientific or folk names, about the features making this area in Romania so unique, but also about his dissatisfaction about the behaviour of some tourists. He stops occasionally to show me a wallcreeper (a small passerine bird), or tens of flowers of various colours growing freely in the forest glades. I start believing I won't be able to assimilate all information and I double check the batteries of my tape recorder. After reaching the summit, I need several minutes to catch my breath, because the sight revealing itself before my eyes is incredibly beautiful and suddenly, the words of John Ruskin pop into my head, "Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty, if only we have the eyes to see them."

Up from above, the Red Lake seems little as in a postcard and it is surrounded, or hugged by slopes covered with forests, some dating from centuries, showing different shades of green.












"The Bicaz Gorges-Hasmas National Park covers an area of 6,800 hectares, it's a park quite small compared to other national parks in Romania, but it's very rich in natural and landscaping monuments such as the Red Lake, the Bicaz Gorges, the Hasmasu Mare Mountains, Piatra Singuratica Mountain Hut, as well as outstanding biological values. There are 1,147 higher plants identified in the park, we have specimens of all big carnivores in Romania, such as lynx, wolf, bear," Barna Hegyi says.

Few know that the area of the Bigaz Gorges-Hasmas National Park hosts the second-largest cluster of bears in Romania, after the one in Harghita Mountains. Up to 80 bears choose the Hasmasu Negru and Hasmasu Mare Mountains for their hibernation period, spending the winter in caves, dens or other places hidden from people's eye. This is also the place where the female bears give birth to cubs; according to Barna Hegyi, along the paths and tourist routes that are not used during winter, "the traces of the tiny cubs and their parents seem like a motorway of bears."

The National Park is also shelter to a unique plant in the world bearing the name "astragalus pseudopurpureus" or "cosasii bicajeni" that can be found only on a surface of 25 square meters in the Bicaz Gorges. The park is also home to tens of species of orchids, such as the rosy vanilla orchid or the lady's slipper orchid, declared monuments of nature.

As far as birds are concerned, two pairs of eagles were found in the Bicaz Gorges, given that there are 50-100 pairs of eagles in the entire Romania, these birds being considered the symbol of power as early as the times of the Roman legions. Therefore, their presence in the Bicaz Gorges is extremely important for the park's biodiversity, taking into account the fact it is an endangered species.

From time to time, Barna Hegyi looks through his binoculars hoping to spot black goats. He shows me the Fairies' Garden (Gradina Zanelor), a rocky area with terraces covered with vegetation, where goats come to learn their cubs how to climb.

It's important to mention the fact that 78 percent of the park is a fully protected area, meaning that no human intervention is allowed. This means that if a tree is felled by strong winds, it has to be left there. Eventually, if the tree falls on a tourist route, it is dragged to the edge of the road and that's it. Intervention is possible only in the case of attacks of damaging insects in the forest, but there have been no such cases so far.

The Red Lake — one of the few barrier lakes in Central and Eastern Europe
The Red Lake, located in the Bicaz Gorges — Hasmas National Park, is one of the few barrier lakes in Central and Eastern Europe; it was the result of the heavy rains in 1837, after a landslide blocked the river bad of several streams. Its novelty and uniqueness reside in the fact that the remains of the old forest can be still spotted on the bottom of the lake, because the local rocks contain iron oxides that have diluted in the lake's water, leading to the preservation of plant stumps.












Barna Hegyi believes that the name of the lake is connected to the iron oxides that used to dilute in the water and turn the water red. Meanwhile, as a result of sedimentary deposits, the water of the Red Lake became ... green. According to the old legends, there is also a love story linked to the formation of this lake.

The most famous legend says that in a village nearby, there was a girl called Eszter, of wondrous beauty. One day, she went to the fair in Gheorgheni, where she noticed a sturdy young man "able to squeeze the breath out of a bear with his two bare hands"; and then they fell in love. The couple decided to get married, but the boy went into the army and the girl stayed at home, waiting for him with longing. One day, Eszter was kidnapped by a thief who wanted to marry her, but she just would not relent. She asked the mountains for help and the mountains, with a terrible sound, threw the cliffs downhill killing everything in sight, including the girl and the thief. This is the legend about the formation of the Red Lake or the Killer Lake, according to the translation from Hungarian.

Another legend claims that the rocks killed a shepherd and his sheep, and the water turned red due to the shepherd's and animals' blood.

An important tourist attraction of the area and the entire country, the lake risks silting in maximum 80 years.

"The lake undergoes a natural silting process. On top of that, given that the forests located on the valley of the lake's main tributary have been returned to their former owners, and the area is not part of the National Park, the slopes underwent land clearing, the retention dams built in the 60s became fully silted and due to the quirky weather and the heavy rainfalls, the lake is highly silted up. Practically, the land moves forward about one meter per year, and at this pace, if no action is taken, the lake will totally disappear in the next 50-80 years," Barna Hegyi explains.












The Gheorgheni Town Hall, the manager of the land hosting the retention basins, has submitted with no success several projects to get European funding for silting removal and preservation of the lake. Attempts will continue in the 2014-2020 budget exercise, even if the funds allotted to environmental protection are much lower.

"During the 2014-2020 session, the funds for environmental protection have halved and we shall seek, on this segment, to access funds, if not for rehabilitating the eco-system or the habitat, at least to rehabilitate some of the retention dams or build new ones. But this is possible only in cooperation with the Gheorgheni Town Hall, considering that the dams are located on their administrative lands and outside the National Park," he said.

Bicaz Gorges — beautiful creations of nature
The Bicaz Gorges are the most towering limestone gorges in Europe, formed by the erosion of the Bicaz stream in the cretaceous limestones, given the fact that in the Cretaceous geologic period, the area was covered by a tropical ocean that hosted a coral reef. On the other hand, "the ocean beneath the lake" and under the tourists' feet, as the park's director calls it, occasionally unravels its secrets and shellfish or coral fossils, proofs of an ancient world, about 170 million years ago, are discovered regularly.












The gorges are 6 km long, guarding over DN 12C national road connecting Transylvania to Moldavia. In some places, the rocky walls are 300 m high and in other areas, the distance between the rocky walls is maximum 6 meters. The narrowest place is the "Stone Gate", with only one car passing through. The entire road crossing the Gorges puts to tests the drivers who are rewarded for their effort with the amazing beauty of the landscape.

"The Bicaz Gorges became a paradise for climbers in Europe, the most difficult routes in Romania and probably the most difficult in Europe are found in the Bicaz Gorges," Barna Hegyi says.

Climbers set records, they climb up the rocks at minus 20 degrees Celsius and they register remarkable results. Unfortunately, this sport also started turning into some kind of fashion, with lots of climbers equipped with very expensive items, but without outstanding skills," says Barna Hegyi.

"Therefore, the mountain rescuers have to keep a close watch on them, and if necessary they must rescue them, because we, the National Park, do not have either the necessary capabilities or the skills to climb the walls after them," he argues.

Eighteen tourist trails, full or partial, are found in the Hasmas-Bicaz Gorges National Park, being managed by the Gheorgheni and Miercurea Ciuc Rescue Mountain Service, the majority being used also during the winter season. About 15,000 tourists per year come here for mountain backpacking and other 100,000 — 150,000 stop to visit the Bicaz Gorges and the Red Lake on their way to their final destination.

Barna Hegyi tells me that the park includes areas that nobody knows, old-growth forests 120 years old that suffered no human intervention, with "moss high half a meter, flowing streams", these places bringing childhood stories to our memory. Very unique are also the meadows stretching over the entire area, with one hundred medicinal flowers blooming from spring to autumn.

The director of the national park recalls that he had as guests several employees and former employees of the Peak District National Park in the UK, who remained breathless, amazed by the beauty of our meadows, saying that "there are fewer protected plants in the entire UK than there are on a meadow in Romania."

Not everything is idyllic for the ten kind people working at the Administration of the Hasmas-Bicaz Gorges National Park. There are the so-called tourists entering the park with their all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and other vehicles, showing no respect for nature; hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers who visit the area Bicaz Gorges — the Red Lake throw garbage at the edge of the road; when night is falling, the economic agents leave their waste in the park not to pay for their transport, and in some cases, there are wood thieves coming here for illegal purposes. On the other hand, there is a very good cooperation between the rangers of the park and the mountain gendarmes at the Red Lake and slowly, the situation is improving.

Problems also arise from the fact that the owners of forests receive no compensation from the state, even if the amount they should be granted annually is only 500 lei per hectare on average, as well as because the budget of the park accounts for a tenth of the budget of a national park in a former communist country in Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Barna Hegyi says bitterly.